Steven C. Miller (Automaton Transfusion) has always been a horror filmmaker, and that’s why Arsenal is so thoroughly ghoulish. From the earliest frames of the Redbox auteur’s ninth genre feature, there’s a thin film of pollution that coats every character and is caked in the corners; no doubt achieved via woozily abrasive digital color grading. Two brothers, Mikey and JP, pedal their bikes to the arcade, tree branches flying by overhead. They’re good boys, and they bicker – Mikey being quite the boorish Cain to JP’s beta Abel – but they need each other, especially once their uncle decides he’s done hitting the bottle and instead picks up a shotgun. As their relative’s brains drip down the walls in leering close-up, Mikey panics, not wanting this afternoon atrocity to scar his little bro for life. So he shoos him off with a fistful of quarters and an earful of insults, safe and sound amongst the strobing video game screens. This is coming of age in Full Collapse – a grotesque DTV Americana that owns ugly dimness, even on its sunniest days.
Through a confluence of overly graphic happenstance (there’s a lead pipe and some teeth involved), Mikey ends up under the wing of suburban Mississippi crime boss Eddie King (Nicolas Cage – we’ll get to him in a second, as I know that’s the main reason you’re here). The two boys grow up, and JP (now played by Entourage’s Adrian Grenier) is a responsible family man running a legit construction business. Mikey (future Herbert West, and possible Joe Manganiello body double, Johnathon Schaech) is just a fuck up, taking loans from his kid brother and flipping the money into bricks of cocaine so that he can pay his child support. Once his package gets jacked during a home invasion, Mikey crawls to Eddie in search of any sort of work that will earn his money back. Now JP’s phone is ringing, and there’s a robotic voice on the other end. In a matter of days, he needs to come up with $350,000, or he’ll never see his brother again. It’s a kidnap conspiracy, victimizing the proverbial “good kid,” who would do anything to save his kin.
“Katrina didn’t run us out, and neither will Eddie King.” The self-serious melodrama of this modern exploitation picture is underscored by an odd sense of righteousness. Men talk to God in order to try and beg their way to freedom once their hands are tired to chairs. Others are beaten to death in evocative slow motion, tidal waves of gore splashing onto the clothes of barehanded murderers. Heads explode in gunfights, skulls split in two by large caliber firepower. But it’s all in the name of standing your ground, shoulder-to-shoulder with your brother – all-American violence in defense of familial virtue. In a sense, Arsenal is a revision on Rockwellian picture painting, as cinematographer Brandon Cox (who also shot Miller’s Bruce Willis bank heist picture, Marauders) frames these weirdly moralistic scenes with an eye for back alley mise-en-scène. Moments are always shifting and jittery due to the pervasive use of handheld techniques, as if the camera’s just as uneasy capturing these images as we are viewing them.
A minor disturbance was caused when Arsenal’s trailer dropped, because a micro-gaggle of Nic Cage enthusiasts thought his demonic Tony Clifton getup looked familiar. While this Eddie King definitely resembles the eight ball frenzy machine that Cage played in the mostly forgotten neo noir slog, Deadfall, very little about his actual personality matches up. Arsenal’s Eddie King is a decaying cheap suit, beating men to death while his jowls seem to impede his ability to create words. Ironic admirers of Cage’s irreplaceable Mega Acting will be able to cut an online reel to match those that already exist for the character’s previous incarnation, but there’s a legitimate joy to the way every one of the movie star’s scenes are cranked to sixteen. The gusto with which Cage delivers a short monologue about a boy who vomited himself to death is sort of a miracle in terms of sheer professionalism. The writing could belong to Shakespeare or a cheap fetish porno, but Cage is going to transform any words he’s given into his particular brand of Martian Community Theater. The man’s a genuine gift, and we should cherish him for as long as he’s around.
On the other hand, John Cusack does not look well these days. Granted, he’s slipping on the skin of a plainclothes detective with an ear to the underworld that requires a ruddy complexion. But there’s a distinct weariness to his movements and greasiness to his complexion that no method or makeup department can quite replicate this authentically. Playing almost all of his scenes from behind aviator sunglasses and sporting a backwards cap over wild hair, he’s barely asked to do more than become a smarmy Sherpa on JP’s quest to rescue his snatched bro. It’s reminiscent of the days Boris Karloff was under contract with Roger Corman, appearing to be sleeping on death’s door while Peter Bogdanovich shot and cut Targets around him. Cusack’s merely giving all that’s required to meet the contractual obligation, only occasionally coming alive during the last decade (Chi-Raq, Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Whenever we see his name headlining one of these straight-to-your-living-room endeavors, it’s a pretty sure bet his presence is not going to conjure much more than half-recalled memories of his glory days portraying teen misfits like Lloyd Dobler.
There’s no way to objectively label Arsenal anything but a terrible movie, but that doesn’t mean Steven C. Miller isn’t a filmmaker possessing a distinct vision. His Silent Night (a remake of 80s cult slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night) transmutes the goofball charm of the original into a genuinely dreadful sensibility – an unpleasant perversion of Christmas ambiance where the blood is just as thick as the eggnog. Miller has been branching out of straight horror for a while now (his Aggression Scale turns Home Alone into Straw Dogs), but has retained the sensibilities of a splatter hound, never satisfied until the set is coated in crimson. To an extent, this is wholly admirable, as the DTV world needs artists who are going to push these standard slices of low budget entertainment to their limits of extremity. It’s just a shame that Arsenal never becomes anything more than a garish freak show, doubling as a pedestrian descent into the depths of what aging superstars will do in order to pay off their back taxes.